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College Football Week 12 Storyline Watch: Critical conference championships take shape

With the nation’s most consequential conference championship game already set, all but two slots in the Power 5 title games could be determined by this weekend.

The Southeastern Conference crown will be settled Dec. 2 in Atlanta between No. 1 Georgia and No. 8 Alabama for the second time in three years – and with likely the same scenario as in 2021.

Provided the undefeated Bulldogs (7-0 SEC, 10-0 overall) stay perfect against No. 18 Tennessee and Georgia Tech, and the Crimson Tide (7-0, 9-1) handle Chattanooga and Auburn, the SEC powerhouses will meet with the chance that both could make the College Football Playoff. Two years ago, a one-loss Alabama team handed Georgia its first defeat, and both teams qualified for the four-team national championship bracket, which has included at least one one-loss squad in all of its previous nine editions. (Georgia turned the tables on Alabama in the national title game.)

But with five Power 5 teams still unbeaten this season, two SEC teams comprising half of the final four-team playoff (which will triple next year) would be dependent on how the other four conferences and their championship games unfold.

Here’s a look at where things stand entering the final two weeks of the regular season:

ACC: No. 4 Florida State (8-0, 10-0) has clinched its spot in the Dec. 2 title game in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the Seminoles (who have North Alabama this weekend and Florida next week) have a clear path to their first playoff berth since 2014 by winning out.

Their conference championship opponent could be decided this weekend: No. 10 Louisville (6-1, 9-1) will reach its first ACC title game (in its first season under coach Jeff Brohm) with a road victory over Miami or if No. 20 North Carolina loses at Clemson. The Cardinals are 0-6-1 against the Hurricanes, who are facing their second consecutive top 10 team after losing 27-20 to the Seminoles last week.

Big Ten: The West division is in the hands of No. 16 Iowa (5-2, 8-2), which can return to its second B1G Championship game in three years by beating Illinois (3-4, 5-5) at home. Their offense (last in the FBS for total yards per game) finally showed signs of clicking in a 22-0 victory over Rutgers, but the Hawkeyes also lost a superstar for the rest of the season. Cornerback Cooper DeJean, who also shines on punt returns, is out with a lower leg injury (and likely headed to the NFL as a projected first-round pick).

Even with a loss, Iowa still can make the championship game by beating Nebraska or with a combination of defeats by Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Determining the B1G’s East representative for the Dec. 2 conference title game in Indianapolis is even simpler – it’s the winner of the Nov. 25 showdown between No. 3 Michigan and No. 2 Ohio State.

Big 12: In the most convoluted picture of the Power 5 title games, No. 7 Texas (6-1, 9-1) can clinch a spot with a victory at Iowa State (5-2, 6-4) and losses by at least two of No. 14 Oklahoma (5-2, 8-2), No. 23 Oklahoma State (5-2, 7-3) and No. 21 Kansas State (5-2, 7-3).

If the Longhorns beat Iowa State, that also helps the case for Oklahoma State, which lost to the Cyclones but has beaten Oklahoma and Kansas State.

Without an undefeated team, the Big 12 also would be most likely to be left out of the playoff.

Pac-12: The Dec. 1 championship game near Las Vegas is trending toward a rematch of No. 5 Washington and No. 6 Oregon (the Huskies’ 36-33 victory over the Ducks on Oct. 14 was perhaps the season’s best).

Washington (7-0, 10-0) will make the championship game with a victory at No. 11 Oregon State (5-2, 8-2) or if No. 17 Arizona (5-2, 7-3) loses to No. 22 Utah (4-3, 7-3). Oregon (6-1, 9-1) will clinch with a victory and a loss by Arizona.

The Huskies and Ducks still will need to get past their in-state rivals the following week. But if they play for the conference title game with only a loss between them, the winner likely will claim one of the spots in the College Football Playoff (and possibly squeeze out a two-team SEC scenario, especially if Michigan and Ohio State meet as 11-0 unbeatens for a spot in the B1G championship).

Other storylines for Week 12:

Harbaugh saga resolved (for now)

Jim Harbaugh will be absent from the sidelines for Michigan’s final two games against Maryland and Ohio State after the school and the Big Ten reached a settlement to avoid a court hearing challenging the conference’s three-game suspension of the coach that started last week.

Harbaugh and the Wolverines accepted the remaining two games of the punishment with the Big Ten agreeing to end its investigation into a sign-stealing scheme and confirm that it had no information linking Harbaugh to former staffer Connor Stalions’ elaborate plan.

The program continues to cooperate with an investigation by the NCAA that could result in further penalties– but not until after the 2023 season.

Harbaugh (who missed the first three games under self-imposed suspension) will return in time for a possible B1G Championship game appearance and bowl game – though Michigan already proved itself capable of a winning big games without him in its 24-15 victory over No. 12 Penn State.

Acting head coach and offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore showed tactical guts and shrewdness by calling 32 running plays (while attempting only one pass) in the second half, but his emotional postgame interview (followed by a passionate display from running back Blake Corum) was just as revelatory. Despite learning of Harbaugh’s punishment less than 24 hours before kickoff (and reportedly via social media), the embattled Wolverines’ cohesion was unaffected.

'Remarkable' play calling by Moore in UMICH win
Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge recap Michigan's big win over Penn State without Jim Harbaugh, including Sherrone Moore's leadership and the strength of the run game, led by Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards.

“They’re even more galvanized,” NBC Sports analyst Todd Blackledge said on the B1G Talk podcast with Noah Eagle. “This is as close of a team and a genuinely unselfish team.”

Blackledge especially noted the demeanor of J.J. McCarthy, who threw only eight passes.

“How many legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates would be OK throwing the ball eight times in a top 10 marquee matchup and handing off 32 times,” Blackledge said. “(McCarthy) was as jubilant after the game as anyone could be. Their unselfishness is legitimate. This brings them together.

“It is a big deal not having your head coach. That punishes the players not having your head coach, especially a forceful personality like Jim Harbaugh. You’ve got decisions to go for it on fourth down, whether to punt … it does make a difference not having the head coach on the field and sideline.”

Staggering into Saturday night

Two reeling teams on midseason losing streaks with identical records (3-4 Big Ten, 5-5 overall) and first-year coaches, Wisconsin and Nebraska still will meet with much hanging in the balance Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock).

Beyond keeping their faint B1G West hopes alive, a victory will make either team bowl eligible. The Badgers have a streak of 21 consecutive bowl appearances that is the conference’s longest, but they hardly have looked like the tough-nosed teams of the past two decades.

The nadir came in a 24-10 home loss to Northwestern that marked Wisconsin’s third consecutive defeat under Luke Fickell. “Embarrassing,” the Badgers’ coach said. “I take the blame of it and not having guys ready, not at any phase of the game. There’s not a whole lot I can say.”

Bowl eligibility on the line in Nebraska-Wisconsin
Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge preview the Week 12 matchup between Nebraska and Wisconsin, specifically the quarterback situation for the Cornhuskers and the question mark surrounding Braelon Allen for the Badgers.

One of his players found his words, though. “We’re soft,” Badgers safety Hunter Wohler said. “We’re not physical. We’re not doing the things that coaches ask of us, and we go out there and expect to win. … Guys got to look inside themselves and find out who they really are and if they really want to play this game and if they really want to be a part of this team, because this is not what I came to Wisconsin for, to be completely honest.

“It comes a point where someone has to tell people to stop screwing around and stop going through the motions and play. Otherwise, get out. ... The things that we have going on are not what Wisconsin football is. It’s not what Wisconsin football represents. And we have to find a way to get rid of the problems and come up with some solutions.”

Nebraska is trying to remedy its deficiencies at quarterback after dropping consecutive games. With Heinrich Haarberg, Jeff Sims and Chubba Purdy all relatively ineffective because of injuries or poor decisions during a 20-14 loss at Indiana, it’s unclear who will start against the Badgers. Coach Matt Rhule, who is in the midst of his third program reclamation project after turning around Temple and Baylor, said the QB decision “probably come all the way up to game time.”

How to watch Nebraska at Wisconsin: Time, live stream, key storylines for Week 12

An improbable Northwestern direction

After a hazing scandal resulted in the shocking termination of longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald four months ago, Northwestern (3-4, 5-5) now has more wins under replacement David Braun than in the last two seasons combined (4-20) with Fitzgerald.

A victory over Purdue or Illinois will return the Wildcats to their first bowl in three years, but their turnaround already was validated by the school’s decision Wednesday to elevate Braun, 38, from interim to permanent as the 30th head coach in NU history.

It’s a remarkable rise for Braun, who was new to the program and never had been an FBS assistant coach before taking the defensive coordinator job in January. Hired from North Dakota State (where he spent four seasons as a defensive assistant and won two FCS championships), the native of Wales, Wisconsin, never had been a head coach at any level.

In addition to ending a 14-game road losing streak that was the longest active skid in the FBS, Northwestern’s victory over Wisconsin made Braun the first Wildcats coach with five wins in his first season since 1903 (when Walter McCornack coached the 10-1 Wildcats to a share of the Big Ten title).

Braun deserves credit for Northwestern success
Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge praise the job David Braun has done in coaching Northwestern to five wins so far this season and explain why he has earned the head coach title.

More coaching shuffles

Though Braun’s hiring closes off a Big Ten opportunity, there suddenly are two vacancies in the SEC with the recent firings of Jimbo Fisher (Texas A&M) and Zach Arnett (Mississippi State).

And there still is another potential opening in the Big Ten (Harlon Barnett remains the interim coach at Michigan State), and two West Coast schools (Boise State and San Diego State) that just are beginning the hunt for new coaches.

That will keep speculation churning throughout the offseason.

More key games

--After shouldering a two-interception performance in a 31-23 loss to Clemson (“Blame me. I’m big enough and man enough to admit that I didn’t play up to the standard that this team, this fan base, this university deserves”), Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman will face Wake Forest, where he played the previous five seasons. The 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff (NBC, Peacock) will mark the Fighting Irish’s 500th game at Notre Dame Stadium (and on Senior Day).

--In a rematch of last year’s ACC title game, No. 20 North Carolina will try to beat unranked Clemson for the first time in 13 years (and for the first time on the road in 22 years).

--The Sunflower Showdown will pit two 7-3 teams with Kansas trying to beat No. 21 Kansas State for the first time in 15 years.

How to watch Big Ten football on NBC and Peacock this weekend

This Saturday’s featured Big Ten game is Nebraska at Wisconsin (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock).

Information for how to sign up for Peacock is available here. Peacock is available for streaming on several devices (view the full list of supported devices here). NBC Sports recently announced its schedules for Big Ten men’s basketball and women’s basketball on Peacock.

Below is the announced remaining schedule for Big Ten teams and Notre Dame on NBC Sports; more NBC Sports games will be announced during the season (all times are ET):

Sat., Nov. 18
3:30 p.m.
Wake Forest at Notre Dame
NBC, Peacock
Sat., Nov. 18
7:30 p.m.
Nebraska at Wisconsin
NBC, Peacock
Friday, Nov. 24
7:30 p.m.
Penn State at Michigan State (Ford Field)
NBC, Peacock

The remaining NBC Sports Big Ten Football games will be announced during the season.